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Blood and Bones Theatre. Fairy Tales

Please let me know if you own this Let’s talk about fairy stories.   Let me think about some of the narratives that others have ...

Monday, January 31, 2011

PR

To a writer every word has a halo of meanings and a streamer of associations trailing off into distant possibilities and improbabilities.  These sometimes clump themselves together for no lingustic, logical or apparent reasons. In my head I have a sort of thesaurus of associations by sense or by sound or by images as well as of meaning.  Any word comes to me as a string or meaning and association which I have to weave into the tapestry of what I am writing.  

Single syllable words beginning “PR”, for instance.  To me these all associate with nursery stories and pantomime.  “Prink” “preen” and primp” is what the Ugly Sisters do before they prod Cinders into fetching and carrying for them.  Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger on a distaff.  Jack gets a couple of magic beans as the price for Daisy the Cow.  Buttons plays a couple of pranks on Cinders and executes a prat fall or two.  The wolf prowls around in the forest.  Nowhere in English literature do you find prunes except in Widow Twankey’s shopping basket alongside a packet of Daz and a string of sausages. And, finally the Prince prances up on his pony and wins the prize by kissing the Sleeping Beauty.

Longer words beginning with the same letters have more practical, technical associations.   Projects are carried out for profit under pressure.

And then there are the very abstract and rarified words like “precept” and “procrastination” “principal” and “principle” and “prelate”.

Of course, I choose words according to register or the language code I am working in, but to be able to string together a necklace of association at the same time I find intensely profitable.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Death Trousers of Poole

The feet are pounding down the midnight pavement with desperate urgency.  We know just  how desperate and how urgent because they are running in super slow motion.  The grey trainers rising from the flagstones, gliding through the thickened air and slapping down with agonising slowness.  And just to underline how urgent this really is we sometimes see clips of the runner in real time with the trainers smacking down like gunshots which echo from the cruel walls of the seedy  hotels on the promenade.  Now we see the runners face, contorted with fear and desperation.  His mouth opens in super slow motion and we hear the long drawn out exclamation: ”Noooooooooooooooo” dragging on through the night air.

We know that the runner, a defrocked clergyman, has realised the truth.  He has just worked out what the common factor is behind all the unexplained deaths, 15 perhaps, even 20 that have plagued the run down estates and dingy back streets  that Poole seems to be entirely made of.  What was it that linked the young mother from Canford Heath, the teenager from Oakdale, the crippled middle aged dancer from Sandbanks?  In a flash of inspiration as vivid as a visitation from God – the very God that our runner has disavowed from the pulpit of St James’  Church only last week to a congregation as shocked at his revelation as he is now– he knows;  and only he can stop further mayhem and slaughter.

His size ten feet crash through the panels at the bottom of the street door.  They are pounding up the stained and faded stair carpet of the cabbage stinking boarding house and our man is shoulder charging through the room door, the lock splintering away from the woodwork.  A young woman jerks her head up in sudden terror at the ghastly intrusion.  She is just dressing to go out to the club, sitting on the edge of the bed just about to pull on the red and black stripey trousers.  “Noooooooooo” his voice continues and now in real time:  “Leave the trousers where they are!!!!!!”  his finger jabbing out like the finger of Jehova on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But her hands are frozen in terror, her fingers locked on to the waistband.  Her eyes are stretched wide.  Slow as treacle pouring our man snatches from his pocket the heavily embroidered stole, the symbol of his once held position as upholder of the faith.  He wraps the scarf round his hands and stretches for the hornet-coloured garment.  It is though he is imploring, begging, praying for the miracle of time. 
Now, the girl has found her voice.  She is screaming, her voice joining his shouted instructions echoing round the room.  Now his trainers come into play again.  Thrusting up and back, slow motion again, Ninja like, an overhead bicycle kick crashing through the dirty glass of the rotten sash window.  And continuing the same movement, with a deep yell as if of religious ecstasy he throws the trousers up and out the window far out into the bay.

Now he is telling the girl, explaining, reassuring.  It was the trousers.  The same pair moving from the rails of Age Concern to Sue Ryder to The British Heart Foundation worming their way through the female underclasses of Poole society.  But now they are gone.  He speaks gently, breathlessly.  The girl sobs and rests her head on his muscled  shoulder.  And as dawn breaks we see them standing there, the faded, ragged curtains flapping in the cold early morning breeze.  He strokes her hair abstractedly as he contemplates eternity.  And his faith flooding back through his manly frame.  

Post script

Across the harbour a yacht is under motor power heading for the open sea and the world beyond.  A woman, lithe and bikini clad shivers in the morning chill.  She wishes she had packed more clothes, but there is no going back now. That rat who until twenty minutes ago was her husband will be standing sullen at the quayside. She suddenly sees something that makes her pause at the wheel, a dawning smile lighting her face.  Draped over the rail, just out of reach for the moment, a pair of red and black stripey trousers.

(With thanks to Elinor Rose Cooper whose idea provided the inspiration)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Duane's Cowboy Boots

Duane took a gulp from his paper cup.  It was coffee.  It was black coffee.  It was very good coffee.  “In a little while,” thought Duane “I will send out for a donut.  A krispy Kreme with pink icing and fudge chunks.  That will be good,” thought Duane.  He paused.  “But not yet.  I will not send out for a Krispy kreme donut yet as I must watch my waistline and I ate a donut only an hour ago.”  Duane liked to be precise in his thinking so he checked his large Breitling watch.  “Fifty five minutes ago, I mean.”  Duane corrected himself.
Duane looked back at his computer screen.  Odd words and phrases scrolled across it in an almost random way.  But there was a pattern there.  Duane knew there was a pattern there as he had been told there was.  All he had to do was to find it.  Duane liked his job.  It was very simple watching this screen and trying to see some sort of sense in it.  Duane was a CIA operative based in West Virginia USA.  He liked working for the CIA as all he had to do was to watch this screen and he could send out for coffee and donuts whenever he felt like it.   Sometimes he felt a little pang of loneliness as he saw no-one else all day long whilst he was at his post.  His orders for coffee and donuts were left on a little table outside his cubicle.  Sometimes, when he popped his head out to pick up the coffee and donuts he lingered briefly to see if he could spot anyone else in the corridor.  But he never had.  He knew there must be dozens of other operatives like him in their cubicles, staring at the same sort of screens.  Hundreds, thousands even in hundreds of other long corridors in this vast (he supposed it was vast) underground concrete complex of long echoing corridors lined with identical little cubicles. But he never saw another soul.  Not even the coffee and donut deliverers and, he supposed, there must be hundreds of them scurrying back and forth, this way and that delivering coffee and donuts to the thousands of identical cubicles in hundreds of echoing corridors throughout the concrete building.   And then when he thought some more about it, it probably wasn’t just black coffee, it was probably cappuchinos and macchiatos and double shot skinny lattes.  And maybe there was more than just donuts  out there.  Maybe there was cheesacake and apple strudel and so on.  Maybe some operatives even ordered tea and ate burgers.  It was possible.  No, it was likely.  Although he had never seen any evidence of it.

In the training for this job they had reminded him that although he was sat on his own at a computer screen all day long he was still a CIA operative, in fact he was in the front line of CIA operations as he was monitoring for possible untoward activity on the internet.  But whilst he was monitoring untoward activity he was still a CIA operative so he was expected to turn up for work properly presented in well-pressed gray suit, shiny black shoes, white shirt and a tie of a discreet colour.  He was not expected to wear rings or other jewellery.  Duane was not of a naturally rebellious nature and he knew that those of a naturally rebellious nature were the type of people who caused the untoward activity he was trying to spot.  But for all his natural conformity, after a few months of duty at his screen when he had not observed another living soul, he let his neatly coiffed hair down metaphorically and took to wearing his favourite cowboy boots under his neatly pressed gray suit.  The cowboy boots had intricate tooling all down the sides and Duane felt comfortable in them.  He had even decided on his line of defense if it came to it and he was questioned about the boots.  He would say that he was able to undertake his duty more efficiently wearing comfortable cowboy boots without all that distracting pinching emanating from the stiff, shiny black regulation shoes.  And so the months had passed and there had been no memo or directive about his cowboy boots so he sometimes even allowed them to loll next to the computer screen on the desk instead of keeping them hidden away in the dark recesses beneath it.
But for the cowboy boots Duane prided himself on being a model CIA operative. His training had been thorough and he was proud of the fact that Western Democracy was in his hands and no member of Al Quaida could possibly get the better of him.
Duane realised that he had been letting his mind wander instead of monitoring the internet for untoward activity.  How long?  He checked his chunky Breitling.  Three minutes.  He felt a sudden surge of panic.  How much traffic had passed in three minutes?  What if after his months of monitoring he had just let a direct terrorist threat pass by and somewhere a bomb was going off in a shopping mall and innocent lives were being lost.   It would be a disaster.  In the ensuing enquiry somebody would trace the lapse back to his computer and to him and he would be paraded before the rest of the operatives.  His cowboy boots would be pointed out and he would be deemed to be of a rebellious nature and entirely unsuited for this type of work.  He would be drummed out of the CIA and there might even be a bout of waterboarding (although he knew for a fact that the CIA did not indulge in that sort of practice) but, at least, he would wave goodbye to free coffee and donuts for ever.  Duane quickly scrolled back through the last three minutes of traffic and sped read until he was up to date.  There had been no untoward activity and the world and his cowboy boots and coffee and donuts were safe.
Duane noted that this had not been the first time his mind had wandered. He had caught himself wandering several times during the last week and each time he had vowed to give up the cowboy boots, go back to the regulation shiny black shoes and drink more black coffee to keep his brain sharp and active.  But then he had found at the end of the day that he had got though without there being a bomb going off in a shopping mall somewhere so he felt vindicated in sticking to his current dress code breach.
The trouble was that his work did give plenty of scope for wandering.  Duane’s job was to monitor all the facebook traffic in a place somewhere in the world called Bournemouth.  And the fact was that Bournemouth seemed to be an infinitely dull place with a lower than usual threat level and the very minimum of untoward activity.  “Bournemouth”  He tried saying the word out loud.  He said it in two distinct syllables “Bourne” and “Mouth”  It sounded as dull as the Facebook traffic seemed to be.   Like a mouthfull of sawdust. “Bourne, Mouth.  Bourne, Mouth.”  Duane couldn’t imagine where Bournemouth was or what it was like.  It could have been in the middle of the Gobi Desrt of the frozen Russian steppes.  Wherever it was, nothing ever happened there.  It was dull, dull, dull. So he took another gulp of good black coffee to wash the sawdust taste out of his mouth and settled back to monitoring for untoward activity.
The Facebook traffic that Duane had to monitor went something like this:  “Sun is shining. Where’s the factor 15? Lol.” “Great bargains in Primark. Lol”  “Another great night at the club.  Completely ratarsed. Where’s the paracetamol?  Rofl” Duane sometimes got glimpses of political unrest “The council have not emptied my dustbin again” “The council must do something about dog poo”  “When are they going to pull that eyesore down?”  These would not be followed by a Lol or a Rofl but by a group of symbols that were meant to denote a frowning face.  Duane was still puzzled why people Laughed out loud or even rolled around on the floor laughing at such inanities or got so upset about such trivialities.  In the end he realised that perhaps their lives were as dull as his without the compensation of the knowledge that they were protecting Western Democracy against an assymetric threat. 
Then, out of the blue, just as he had decided he would have another donut after all he spotted a message flash across the screen.  It said:  “Hi Duane.”  At first Duane did not register what it said.  It was such a little thing but after a split second he scrolled back to read the message again.  There it was: “Hi Duane.”  Duane studied it for a moment and then decided that there must be thousands of Duanes out there in facebook land and it was, after all, some sort of coincidence.    But a few minutes later came another one:  “What’s the weather like in West Virginia, Duane?”  Again, Duane calculated the probabilities.  Duane was a common enough name in West Virginia.  Why, he knew at least three himself. But when a third message came reading “Say Duane, what’s it like working for the CIA?”  Duane knew there was something untoward going on. He swung the cowboy boots smartly under the desk.   If he had to call a supervisor he wanted no complications.  The trouble was he didn’t really know what the procedure was in cases such as these. “Bomb in schoolyard timed to go off at midday. Lol” or “Crash jet into Bournemouth shopping mall.  Rofl” seemed fairly straightforward.  But nowhere in the training did it say anything about somebody actually contacting a CIA operative.  The next message read:  “Duane, how’s the coffee and donuts?” and Duane began to sweat.  He fervently wished he had chosen to wear the shiny blacks today.  And he fervently promised God that he would never wear his cowboy boots again if only this would go away.  But it did not go away.  It got worse:  “Are you wearing your nice shiny black shoes, Duane.”  His white shirt was wringing wet with perspiration. And before he could help himself he was sending a reply.  “Yes, of course I am.  What do you take me for a damn subversive?”.  All at once he was horrified by what he had done.  It was against all regulations.  He had admitted to someone out there  that the CIA was monitoring Facebook .  He had acted on impulse and his impulse had demonstrated his real nature.  He was as much a subversive as all those Bournemouth Al Quaida cells. He plunged his head into his hands.

With trembling fingers Duane closed the screen.  He had screwed up.  He had betrayed his colleagues, the CIA and, above all, he had betrayed himself.  No more could he draw the cloak of anonymity around himself.  He had proved himself to be unreliable, to be one of those of a rebellious nature. He might as well apply for a registration card for the Communist party.  He was finished.  The only untoward activity he had seen today was his and his alone.  Sighing, he stepped out of the cubicle.  And at once a wave of regret swept over him.  They had got the better of him – and he had never had the chance to try the apple strudel.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Chance


The maroon thumps the sky and we pause to see if there will be a second.  There is.  I put down my knife and fork, wipe my lips and stumble up into the observatory to watch the launch.  Two minutes and forty seconds after the detonation the doors spread open and the lifeboat is eased out onto the top of the slipway. Two figures in fluorescent overalls busy themselves at the stern raising the aerials and clipping the stays but I can’t see their faces.  Some of the crew must already be aboard. Another pair arrives with jackets on and scramble aboard.  The step ladder is taken away and after a few more seconds the boat moves slowly down the slip and buries its bow in the oncoming sea.  With no more spectacle than a number 72 bus pulling out of the depot the lifeboat makes its way out of the bay and plunges into the big rolling seas off the Point.  For another minute or so I can see it through the glasses lifting and dropping over the white caps; then the weather closes in and four minutes and thirty seconds after the second maroon there is nothing to see.

My routine is to wait in the observatory till the boat returns but I hear laughter coming up from below so I shuffle back down and try to pick up the atmosphere.  But they know me and within twenty minutes they have excused themselves and are gone.  There was a time when we would have gone on into the night drinking a little more malt whisky than was good for us.  But they don’t like to come so much now and I don’t like them coming. I worry them, I think. And I worry for them.  They were my friends once, after all.

Back in the observatory I turn to the local radio station in case there is any news.  I could listen in on the marine band emergency channel but David forbids it.  He says it’s unlucky.  I know that’s not true.  He’s not given to that way of thinking.  It’s more likely something to do with not wanting to be self-conscious when working.  Either way, I have to respect his wishes.

I put on the ring to warm some cocoa.  In the High Street below my window it’s an unremarkable sort of evening.  Young men are gathered near the door of the Red Lion.  Car doors slam and girls shriek as the chill wind blows their skirts out before them.  The young men laugh at the girls’ discomfort and they all mill into the pub together leaving the coloured lights from the arcade opposite flashing soundlessly onto the wet pavement.  It’s strange that even in this town almost oblivious to the sea hissing beyond the promenade, people still pause for a minute when they hear one maroon to see if there will be a second.  Two maroons mean the lifeboat will be launched and there is still some moment in that.  Here, young men still walk with a swagger when they wear an R.N.L.I. pager at their belt.  Most local drivers know which cars and vans to let past when they swing out suddenly into Station Road with their headlights blazing on the way to the Lifeboat House.  And if they’re out for a constitutional after dinner most people will stand and watch on the prom for a couple of minutes until the excitement is over.  Not that there is any excitement.  It’s always very calm, very ordinary.

And there’s no danger, not now; not these days of modern high-tech equipment and satellite navigation.  A yacht has lost engine power and needs a tow, perhaps.  Or a crew member with appendicitis needs taking of a Polish freighter passing up channel.  The injuries are small and commonplace:  a grazed forehead when a boom swings unexpectedly across the deck, rope burns, a grazed hand.  But there is one element that puts the lifeboat and her crew beyond being merely a floating breakdown truck or a marine ambulance.  It is the sea.  The sea causes trouble; and having caused it, it entices out the men in the Lifeboat to play games with it.  If your luck holds, you’re O.K. If not, watch out.

I finish my cocoa and turn to the log.  It falls open on September the ninth 1989 because that page is so thumbed.  Only a simple entry:  “Launch 21.09 to aid motor cruiser Albion off Kimmeridge ledges.”  And, as an afterword:  “R.B. Fellowes tangled in line he was trying to get to Albion and pulled into water. Drowned.”  It was a million to one chance.  There was nothing that wasn’t done properly.  He was in full survival gear with life jacket and bump cap but the line held him under and by the time they got a boat hook to him and cut him free it was too late.  People were very kind to me.  They understood, they said; and me having lost Miriam only a year before.  There was a memorial service in St. Mary’s but I never spoke about it.  They thought I was numb with grief but that wasn’t true.  I’d been expecting it.  You see, I knew my luck had run out.  And once that happens all you can do is sit quietly and wait for the blows to fall.

There is a line in the Bible about planting and watering and God giving the increase.  Well, I did plant well.  When we came here, Miriam and I, we had a good business and this was a good place to let it grow.  Plenty of holidaymakers in the summer and, for the rest of the year, a quiet place from which to send out orders.  By the time Bob was born we had already moved house once.  A nice bungalow out on the Valley Road and then, with the arrival of David, we moved here. Bought it too. Paid cash outright.  A growing business, our own house, a family and a beautiful wife.  I even joined the Yacht Club.  Just for the bar, really.  Somebody took me out in a dinghy one Saturday but I didn’t like it.  But apart from that I had everything a man could want.  And the whole thing was built on Chance.

Chance, you see, was the name of the business.  It was the board game I invented whilst I was kicking my heels and waiting for demob.  It was a simple idea:  you moved counters round a board following a number of alternative paths.  The first one to the end won.  The trick, though, was the risk factor.  After every move you shook the dice to calculate the risk on what you had done.  The greater the risk, the greater the reward and you could go galloping round the board, taking pieces, destroying other players,  making money.   But the greater the risk, the closer to disaster you had to steer and if the dice said the wrong thing you were wiped out.  I’ve seen grown men, hard bitten fighters who’d resisted Rommel step by step through the North African desert reduced to tears by Chance.   But in the gloomy days of post-war Britain people loved it.  When everything else is rationed there are only two things to occupy your mind and most people found Chance more exciting than the other.  What’s more it was cheap and easy to make, a cardboard playing surface, a few trinkets for counters and a pair of dice.

For the first few years I was on the road every single minute of every day, selling, selling, selling.  Shopkeepers couldn’t get enough of them.  I got a small printing firm to make the sets and, later, employed a couple of blokes to do the selling for me.  All I had to do was to run the shop front and take the profits.  Then, when I married Miriam, we decided the seaside would be as good a place as any to have the office and, besides, it was a better place to bring up kids.  By then there were a number of variations on the game, too.  International Chance, Junior Chance.  But this place inspired the most successful so far - Sea Chance.

The ironical thing was that I could never play the game myself.  I couldn’t face losing and with the risks involved that was pretty much a certainty as far as I could see.  I knew you could only count on the roll of the dice for so long.  I saw it every time the game was played; the further round the board you got, the longer your luck held, the more you had to lose.  I came to recognise the look of horror that haunted players' eyes when a long run crashed and they lost the lot.  But it was only a game and people love to be frightened.  I suppose you could say that my game was a primitive version of a modern white knuckle ride.

The radio is churning our idiotic, harmless, night-time music.  No dramatic news flashes or anything like that, so I suppose there’s nothing much to worry about.   The waiting I find difficult.  Waiting and waiting.  Two years ago there was a massive appeal and they raised enough money for a new lifeboat.  Huge sums of money were raised which is pretty mind-boggling because it’s only a small town.  But people do believe in the Life boat.  Even if they get no nearer the sea than the chip shop on the promenade they know they are lucky to have a lifeboat.  And having one is like a lucky charm for the whole town.  I mean, it’s not something any of us are ever going to make use of but we’re proud to have it.  They used Bob’s photograph on some of the posters for the appeal.  It didn’t make any difference to me; if it brought in a few more pounds, good luck to them.  But then somebody had second thoughts.  A bit tacky I think they reckoned so he disappeared from the appeal just as he’d disappeared into the ocean.  Within a year I’d lost wife and son and then the recession bit and the company, Sea-Chance and all, disappeared with them..

I still have a house and I’ve still got David. He’s happy enough.  He gets jobs around the place, delivering newspapers, cleaning windows, a bit of farm work.  He has a room along Institute Road and he has friends, I think, but most of his life revolves round the Lifeboat.  Training, drills, courses, that sort of thing.  Sometimes he comes round for dinner but he hasn’t been here for a month or two.  I don’t like him coming here.  I’m afraid for him.  He laughs at me.
“It’s no use cutting yourself off, Dad.”  He says.  But there is.  I don’t want any of my bad luck rubbing off on him.

The thing about luck is not the absence of it.  I saw poor people in Egypt and Libya struggling against appalling poverty and difficulties and still keeping going.  “Insh’allah.”  They would say.  “Allah is good.  As Allah wills it.”
No, it’s when luck suddenly turns against you that it becomes dangerous.  It’s like a big dog that lollops amiably at your heels until, one day, it goes mad and tries to tear your throat out.

I’ve often meant to trace it back; to find the turning point.  What was the precise moment when luck ceased working for me and started working against me?  Probably there wasn’t one single moment, more a culmination of small things building up until the scales tipped away from me.  For some years we must have been living on a credit of luck and then, when it was all gone, life ripped apart like an airliner with metal fatigue.

But if there is one tiny thing that did tip the balance then it must have been the day when I stopped actually believing.  I had been scrambling on the rocks up near the Point, picking up pebbles and skipping them out over the waves.  Two, three, four skips each.  I knew how far each one was going to go before I flung it.  And I could make them go further and further.  As far as I chose.  I shouted out my forecasts:  “The next one three skips.”  It skipped three times.  “The next one four skips.”  It skipped.  “The next one five skips.  If it skips five times I will be happy ever after.”  and I bent and picked up the stone.   It was smooth and flat and just the perfect shape.  No trouble with five skips, it could do six or seven if I wanted.  It also had a hole right through the middle.  Round here they’re called lucky stones.  In the old days you hung them from a ribbon round your horse’s neck to stop it being hag-ridden at night.  And the one thing you must not do with a lucky stone is throw it away.  That’s throwing your luck away, they say.  Now, what was I to do?  Make it skip five times and live happily ever after or keep it for luck?  It was only a brief moment of indecision before I slanted it our over the water but the hesitation must have been long enough to affect my aim.  Two, three, four skips and it sank beneath the waves.  It was like being a character in one of those old cartoons who doesn’t realise he’s hanging in mid air until he looks down and realises he’s run right out over the cliff.  Suddenly, something made me feel vulnerable, human.  And feeling it, I was.

Misfortune is not like an illness.  You can’t catch it.  But the reason I keep old friends away from me is because I don’t want them to look down into the abyss the way I did..  One of them might ask me what happened to my good fortune, and I might just tell him and that will set him wondering and then....  Perhaps there is one parallel with disease;  the fact that it’s incurable.  Once you’ve got it, it just keeps piling into you again and again.  Until you can only wish that you had nothing else to be taken away from you.

I make some cocoa and scan the horizon again with the binoculars. The night is never dead black when you look at it in detail.  Even with a fog and a lowering cloud there is broken light in scratches and splashes but they don’t take any particular form and nothing resolves itself into a story.  Whatever game is afoot out there I can have no part of it.  I just wait to see the winner and loser.  To wait and wait is almost beyond bearing.  This is the last throw of my game.  I have nothing left to play for.  I twist the dial of the radio along the wavelengths waiting for some word.  My back and legs are stiff and I pace unevenly back and forth.  At last I turn back to the radio and push the button marked Marine Band.  Now the waiting will be over and I will know the outcome out there in the channel.

Chance


 The maroon thumps the sky and we pause to see if there will be a second.  There is.  I put down my knife and fork, wipe my lips and stumble up into the observatory to watch the launch.  Two minutes and forty seconds after the detonation the doors spread open and the lifeboat is eased out onto the top of the slipway. Two figures in fluorescent overalls busy themselves at the stern raising the aerials and clipping the stays but I can’t see their faces.  Some of the crew must already be aboard. Another pair arrives with jackets on and scramble aboard.  The step ladder is taken away and after a few more seconds the boat moves slowly down the slip and buries its bow in the oncoming sea.  With no more spectacle than a number 72 bus pulling out of the depot the lifeboat makes its way out of the bay and plunges into the big rolling seas off the Point.  For another minute or so I can see it through the glasses lifting and dropping over the white caps; then the weather closes in and four minutes and thirty seconds after the second maroon there is nothing to see.

My routine is to wait in the observatory till the boat returns but I hear laughter coming up from below so I shuffle back down and try to pick up the atmosphere.  But they know me and within twenty minutes they have excused themselves and are gone.  There was a time when we would have gone on into the night drinking a little more malt whisky than was good for us.  But they don’t like to come so much now and I don’t like them coming. I worry them, I think. And I worry for them.  They were my friends once, after all.

Back in the observatory I turn to the local radio station in case there is any news.  I could listen in on the marine band emergency channel but David forbids it.  He says it’s unlucky.  I know that’s not true.  He’s not given to that way of thinking.  It’s more likely something to do with not wanting to be self-conscious when working.  Either way, I have to respect his wishes.

I put on the ring to warm some cocoa.  In the High Street below my window it’s an unremarkable sort of evening.  Young men are gathered near the door of the Red Lion.  Car doors slam and girls shriek as the chill wind blows their skirts out before them.  The young men laugh at the girls’ discomfort and they all mill into the pub together leaving the coloured lights from the arcade opposite flashing soundlessly onto the wet pavement.  It’s strange that even in this town almost oblivious to the sea hissing beyond the promenade, people still pause for a minute when they hear one maroon to see if there will be a second.  Two maroons mean the lifeboat will be launched and there is still some moment in that.  Here, young men still walk with a swagger when they wear an R.N.L.I. pager at their belt.  Most local drivers know which cars and vans to let past when they swing out suddenly into Station Road with their headlights blazing on the way to the Lifeboat House.  And if they’re out for a constitutional after dinner most people will stand and watch on the prom for a couple of minutes until the excitement is over.  Not that there is any excitement.  It’s always very calm, very ordinary.

And there’s no danger, not now; not these days of modern high-tech equipment and satellite navigation.  A yacht has lost engine power and needs a tow, perhaps.  Or a crew member with appendicitis needs taking of a Polish freighter passing up channel.  The injuries are small and commonplace:  a grazed forehead when a boom swings unexpectedly across the deck, rope burns, a grazed hand.  But there is one element that puts the lifeboat and her crew beyond being merely a floating breakdown truck or a marine ambulance.  It is the sea.  The sea causes trouble; and having caused it, it entices out the men in the Lifeboat to play games with it.  If your luck holds, you’re O.K. If not, watch out.

I finish my cocoa and turn to the log.  It falls open on September the ninth 1989 because that page is so thumbed.  Only a simple entry:  “Launch 21.09 to aid motor cruiser Albion off Kimmeridge ledges.”  And, as an afterword:  “R.B. Fellowes tangled in line he was trying to get to Albion and pulled into water. Drowned.”  It was a million to one chance.  There was nothing that wasn’t done properly.  He was in full survival gear with life jacket and bump cap but the line held him under and by the time they got a boat hook to him and cut him free it was too late.  People were very kind to me.  They understood, they said; and me having lost Miriam only a year before.  There was a memorial service in St. Mary’s but I never spoke about it.  They thought I was numb with grief but that wasn’t true.  I’d been expecting it.  You see, I knew my luck had run out.  And once that happens all you can do is sit quietly and wait for the blows to fall.

There is a line in the Bible about planting and watering and God giving the increase.  Well, I did plant well.  When we came here, Miriam and I, we had a good business and this was a good place to let it grow.  Plenty of holidaymakers in the summer and, for the rest of the year, a quiet place from which to send out orders.  By the time Bob was born we had already moved house once.  A nice bungalow out on the Valley Road and then, with the arrival of David, we moved here. Bought it too. Paid cash outright.  A growing business, our own house, a family and a beautiful wife.  I even joined the Yacht Club.  Just for the bar, really.  Somebody took me out in a dinghy one Saturday but I didn’t like it.  But apart from that I had everything a man could want.  And the whole thing was built on Chance.

Chance, you see, was the name of the business.  It was the board game I invented whilst I was kicking my heels and waiting for demob.  It was a simple idea:  you moved counters round a board following a number of alternative paths.  The first one to the end won.  The trick, though, was the risk factor.  After every move you shook the dice to calculate the risk on what you had done.  The greater the risk, the greater the reward and you could go galloping round the board, taking pieces, destroying other players,  making money.   But the greater the risk, the closer to disaster you had to steer and if the dice said the wrong thing you were wiped out.  I’ve seen grown men, hard bitten fighters who’d resisted Rommel step by step through the North African desert reduced to tears by Chance.   But in the gloomy days of post-war Britain people loved it.  When everything else is rationed there are only two things to occupy your mind and most people found Chance more exciting than the other.  What’s more it was cheap and easy to make, a cardboard playing surface, a few trinkets for counters and a pair of dice.

For the first few years I was on the road every single minute of every day, selling, selling, selling.  Shopkeepers couldn’t get enough of them.  I got a small printing firm to make the sets and, later, employed a couple of blokes to do the selling for me.  All I had to do was to run the shop front and take the profits.  Then, when I married Miriam, we decided the seaside would be as good a place as any to have the office and, besides, it was a better place to bring up kids.  By then there were a number of variations on the game, too.  International Chance, Junior Chance.  But this place inspired the most successful so far - Sea Chance.

The ironical thing was that I could never play the game myself.  I couldn’t face losing and with the risks involved that was pretty much a certainty as far as I could see.  I knew you could only count on the roll of the dice for so long.  I saw it every time the game was played; the further round the board you got, the longer your luck held, the more you had to lose.  I came to recognise the look of horror that haunted players' eyes when a long run crashed and they lost the lot.  But it was only a game and people love to be frightened.  I suppose you could say that my game was a primitive version of a modern white knuckle ride.

The radio is churning our idiotic, harmless, night-time music.  No dramatic news flashes or anything like that, so I suppose there’s nothing much to worry about.   The waiting I find difficult.  Waiting and waiting.  Two years ago there was a massive appeal and they raised enough money for a new lifeboat.  Huge sums of money were raised which is pretty mind-boggling because it’s only a small town.  But people do believe in the Life boat.  Even if they get no nearer the sea than the chip shop on the promenade they know they are lucky to have a lifeboat.  And having one is like a lucky charm for the whole town.  I mean, it’s not something any of us are ever going to make use of but we’re proud to have it.  They used Bob’s photograph on some of the posters for the appeal.  It didn’t make any difference to me; if it brought in a few more pounds, good luck to them.  But then somebody had second thoughts.  A bit tacky I think they reckoned so he disappeared from the appeal just as he’d disappeared into the ocean.  Within a year I’d lost wife and son and then the recession bit and the company, Sea-Chance and all, disappeared with them..

I still have a house and I’ve still got David. He’s happy enough.  He gets jobs around the place, delivering newspapers, cleaning windows, a bit of farm work.  He has a room along Institute Road and he has friends, I think, but most of his life revolves round the Lifeboat.  Training, drills, courses, that sort of thing.  Sometimes he comes round for dinner but he hasn’t been here for a month or two.  I don’t like him coming here.  I’m afraid for him.  He laughs at me.
“It’s no use cutting yourself off, Dad.”  He says.  But there is.  I don’t want any of my bad luck rubbing off on him.

The thing about luck is not the absence of it.  I saw poor people in Egypt and Libya struggling against appalling poverty and difficulties and still keeping going.  “Insh’allah.”  They would say.  “Allah is good.  As Allah wills it.”
No, it’s when luck suddenly turns against you that it becomes dangerous.  It’s like a big dog that lollops amiably at your heels until, one day, it goes mad and tries to tear your throat out.

I’ve often meant to trace it back; to find the turning point.  What was the precise moment when luck ceased working for me and started working against me?  Probably there wasn’t one single moment, more a culmination of small things building up until the scales tipped away from me.  For some years we must have been living on a credit of luck and then, when it was all gone, life ripped apart like an airliner with metal fatigue.

But if there is one tiny thing that did tip the balance then it must have been the day when I stopped actually believing.  I had been scrambling on the rocks up near the Point, picking up pebbles and skipping them out over the waves.  Two, three, four skips each.  I knew how far each one was going to go before I flung it.  And I could make them go further and further.  As far as I chose.  I shouted out my forecasts:  “The next one three skips.”  It skipped three times.  “The next one four skips.”  It skipped.  “The next one five skips.  If it skips five times I will be happy ever after.”  and I bent and picked up the stone.   It was smooth and flat and just the perfect shape.  No trouble with five skips, it could do six or seven if I wanted.  It also had a hole right through the middle.  Round here they’re called lucky stones.  In the old days you hung them from a ribbon round your horse’s neck to stop it being hag-ridden at night.  And the one thing you must not do with a lucky stone is throw it away.  That’s throwing your luck away, they say.  Now, what was I to do?  Make it skip five times and live happily ever after or keep it for luck?  It was only a brief moment of indecision before I slanted it our over the water but the hesitation must have been long enough to affect my aim.  Two, three, four skips and it sank beneath the waves.  It was like being a character in one of those old cartoons who doesn’t realise he’s hanging in mid air until he looks down and realises he’s run right out over the cliff.  Suddenly, something made me feel vulnerable, human.  And feeling it, I was.

Misfortune is not like an illness.  You can’t catch it.  But the reason I keep old friends away from me is because I don’t want them to look down into the abyss the way I did..  One of them might ask me what happened to my good fortune, and I might just tell him and that will set him wondering and then....  Perhaps there is one parallel with disease;  the fact that it’s incurable.  Once you’ve got it, it just keeps piling into you again and again.  Until you can only wish that you had nothing else to be taken away from you.

I make some cocoa and scan the horizon again with the binoculars. The night is never dead black when you look at it in detail.  Even with a fog and a lowering cloud there is broken light in scratches and splashes but they don’t take any particular form and nothing resolves itself into a story.  Whatever game is afoot out there I can have no part of it.  I just wait to see the winner and loser.  To wait and wait is almost beyond bearing.  This is the last throw of my game.  I have nothing left to play for.  I twist the dial of the radio along the wavelengths waiting for some word.  My back and legs are stiff and I pace unevenly back and forth.  At last I turn back to the radio and push the button marked Marine Band.  Now the waiting will be over and I will know the outcome out there in the channel.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Cliff Fall - (From Cafe Conversations)

THE MAN
Two teas and a plate of rock buns please.....
The Woman
You nearly pushed me over, you know.
The Man
I know.  Nearly pushed you over.
The Woman
Did you see all the rocks below?
The Man
Must have been, what, hundred feet down.
The Woman
Straight down onto the rocks.
The Man
Did you see the surf?  Crashing over the rocks.
If you’d have survived the fall you would’ve been washed away by the surf.
The Woman
That’s for sure.  And there’s a nasty current there.  You wouldn’t have got me back.
The Man
I’d’ve called the coastguard.
The Woman
They wouldn’t’ve been able to do anything.  Not with that current.
The Man
You’d’ve been well out to sea.  It would’ve been a job for the lifeboat.
The Woman
Would you’ve known what to say?  “I’ve just pushed someone over the cliffs.”?
The Man
Clumsy.
The Woman
Very clumsy.  Still you didn’t.
The Man
What?
The Woman
You didn’t push me over.
The Man
No, I caught you just in time.
The Woman
That was lucky.
The Man
Very lucky.  I could’ve been looking the other way.
The Woman
You were.  That’s why you nearly had me over the edge.
The Man
That’s right.  I was watching that peregrine.  And I just backed into you.
The Woman
That was it.  I was standing on the edge.  On the very brink...
The Man
And I turned to say “Look at that.  Is that a peregrine or a kestrel?”
The Woman
And you just caught me.
The Man
Lucky.  You didn’t tell me what you thought it was.  Peregrine or kestrel.
The Woman
That was because I was nearly halfway down the cliff towards the rocks below.
The Man
So what do you think?
The Woman
What?
The Man
Was it a peregrine or a kestrel?
The Woman
Didn’t get a good enough look.  Mind you, another two seconds and I could have asked it.
The Man
Perhaps I shouldn’t’ve grabbed you, then.
The Woman
It would’ve made a bit of a mess.  I would’ve made a bit of a mess.
The Man
The sea would’ve cleared it up.  A couple of waves and that would be it.
The Woman
You’d have had a lot of questions to answer.
The Man
Like what?
The Woman
Like “why did you push me over the edge of the cliff onto the rocks below”.
The Man
That’s only one question.
The Woman
Well?
The Man
I didn’t push you over.  I was trying to stop you but you missed your footing.  I stood there dumbfounded as you hurtled down the cliff face twisting and turning, bouncing from outcrops like a rag doll until you smashed onto the jagged teeth of the storm lashed rocks below.  I was too horror struck to move.  I knew there was nothing to do.  I couldn’t drag my eyes away from the spot where you had fallen.
The Woman
Pushed more like.  It was a definite shove.
The Man
 Eventually I found the strength to dial the coastguards on my mobile
The Woman
Then what happened?
The Man
Nothing.  I couldn’t get a signal so I had to set off inland leaving the reddened surf to wash the pulp that had been you away.
The Woman
Were you sobbing?
The Man
No.  No.  I was trembling.  With the shock. There may have been tears later.
The Woman
Of the crocodile variety entirely.
The Man
There was a definite prickling behind the eyelids.
The Woman
What happened when the coastguards arrived?
The Man
Oh, they did what they could.  It was all a blur.  The helicopter hovering low over the waves.  The Lifeboat.  I don’t really remember.  And then I was sitting in the coastguard van drinking hot sweet tea out of a thermos.  It tasted metallic.
The Woman
I expect the police would have wanted to ask questions.
The Man
Oh, they were very good.  Very understanding.  The left it for a few days for me to begin to get over the shock and to make the arrangements.
The Woman
Arrangements?
The Man
The funeral.  Of course there would be no grave.  Perhaps a small memorial plaque in the chapel above the cliffs.  Sometimes I return there at this time of year.....  I like to be alone with my thoughts.
The Woman
And the police investigation?
The Man
Inconclusive.  I think they had their suspicions.
The Woman
It was an accident, surely they could see that.
The Man
There was talk in the neighbourhood.  Someone had seen the incident with the washing up gloves.
The Woman
And the shopping trolley?
The Man
Oh, God yes.  The shopping trolley incident.  I couldn’t cover that up.  But there was no actual evidence.  And I wasn’t going to confess.
The Woman
Would you have done?
The Man
In a police state.  In America there would have been extraordinary rendition and unspeakable torture in an eastern European prison camp hidden deep in the forests of Silesia.  I would have cracked. Eventually.  They would have returned me, broken in body and mind to face a lifetime of A-wing confinement and self-reproach.
The Woman
As it was...?
The Man
The Coroner brought in an open verdict and there was shaking of heads in the public gallery.  After that there was no rest.
The Woman
The press...?
The Man
Hounded me unmercifully.  I could have sold my story many times over.  I could have retired to live a life of comparative ease with occasional personal appearances on the Jonathon Ross show.  It would only when I was alone at night in some anonymous hotel room that the memories would have come flooding back.
The Woman
But celebrity of that sort doesn’t last long.
The Man
Thank God.  No, but I still get occasional letters from Phd students researching the great unsolved crimes. 
The Woman
Aha.  Crime!  You let it slip.
The Man
They were students. What could they know?
The Woman
A definite Freudian slip
The Man
And once or twice I’ve been approached for the film rights.
The Woman
So who’s pencilled in for the main part?
The Man
I don’t keep up with the cinema these days.  Barely venture out.  And I don’t have a television.  I like to be alone with my thoughts.  I’ve let my hair and beard grow.  And, I’m afraid to say, my personal hygiene is not what it should be.  My finger nails are so long they curl back and pierce the palms of my hands.  They are my stigmata.  I keep piles of newspapers in the hallway and there is talk that the council will evict me.  Because of the rats.
The Woman
I expect if you had your life over again it would be so different.
The Man
We would have danced and been gay.  Attended parties in the great houses driving home through the darkened lanes in the open top Bentley and picknicked at midnight on the clifftops with the windup gramophone playing charlestons and black bottoms.  The harvest moon would have been big and bright and smiling down on us.  And you would have said...
The Woman
I love you.  I always have loved you and I always will.  We were meant to be.
The Man
The irony is that this is the place, the very place where, in another reality, you plunged to your death.  If I hadn’t caught you just in time.
The Woman
I’m glad you did, though.
The Man
Yes, I’m glad I did.